The Coward follows Jarred, a young man coping with his newfound disability, as he is forced to confront the volatile childhood that left his relationship with his alcoholic father, Jack, in tatters. The novel stands out for its simple, clear prose. It’s succinct and brutal at times, much like the content it conveys.
McGinnis’ ability to maintain this bite, this sharpness of expression marked by the flexibility of feeling, is phenomenal. No character is romanticized, no trait appears without the counterweight of a nagging flaw. It’s this artlessness of life, the author’s unaffected candor, that speaks most to the human disposition, introducing a level of realism that exposes the story’s innate tenderness.
It’s also why following the erratic course of Jack and Jarred’s relationship is such a consuming experience; why the pain of each bump is felt on a rational level. Even senseless actions come across as compelling, leaving no motive bent out of shape by the elasticity that differentiates fiction from reality.
By choosing ugliness instead of perfection, McGinnis’ characters embrace the crudeness that can be observed in everyday life. But much like Jarred, who ends up bound to a wheelchair against his will, we too are forced to accept the disfigurement of human nature, the self-driven desires and cruelty that rupture relationships.
The Coward is an uncomfortable read, but one that is relentless in its ability to engage. Feelings of grief and regret stream down every page, but they’re offset by the peculiar weightlessness that allows humans to go on after an emotional cataclysm.
The novel’s humor dazzles, mainly because of its rarity and impeccable placement. It springs off the page, taking on the form of a punch line. The following quote is one of the many examples of McGinnis’ use of comedy, “Jack couldn’t remember what he ordered so he made up the names”, prompting Jack and Jarred to refer to their meals as “Pow Pow Chicken” and “Kung Fu noodles”.
Our emotional investment in their relationship is amplified by the story’s tendency to leap through time. This gives rise to a multitude of events tethered both to the past and the present, drawing suspense from interpersonal tensions.
On top of that, we’re shown how Jarred’s bipolar disorder perpetuates his self-destructive behaviors but never absolves him of their consequences. By revealing his emotional turmoil, McGinnis points to the tragedy of disaffection, the anguish of being misconstrued and villainized.
The one person who sees through these impulses is also the one with whom Jarred fights with the greatest ferocity, transforming The Coward into an extraordinary tale about the relationships that define us.
Publication date: July 1, 2021 (Canongate)